Legendary Mix Engineer Michael Brauer Talks with Universal Audio
Michael Brauer has enjoyed an illustrious 30-year music career, mixing chart-topping albums by renowned artists including Coldplay, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, and The Rolling Stones. Last month he nabbed the coveted Best Engineered Album Grammy® Award for John Mayer’s Battle Studies, the latest in a long line of accolades for this A-list mixer. Long revered for the storied sonic approach he calls “BRAUERIZE”, Brauer holds court over an amperage-busting, NASA-like collection of vintage outboard gear at New York’s Electric Lady Studios. But even with access to some of the world’s most prized electronics, Brauer delegates a large portion of his signal processing duties these days to Universal Audio's UAD-2 Powered Plug-Ins. “They have the sound I’m looking for,” he says. “And for me, it’s all about sound.”
Brauer sat down with us during a rare hole in his busy mixing schedule to talk about his history and the mystery that makes effects processors by Universal Audio some of his most celebrated sonic tools.
Congratulations on your recent Grammy win for John Mayer’s Battle Studies. You’ve worked on Grammy-winning albums in the past, but this one, by your own admission, has special significance. Why?
Well, as an engineer, it’s a tremendous honor, as it’s the direct result of people voting for the job that you’ve done. They’re listening to it and judging the sound of it, not just enjoying it for the sake of entertainment. So for me, the engineering award is one that actually celebrates what I do. It’s kind of like the Holy Grail for many of us on this side of the glass.
Battle Studies is an amazing sounding album. It strikes a perfect balance between being modern and fresh sounding, while paying homage to the funky sounds of yesteryear. Can you name a specific track that UA gear helped elevate?
Sure. There’s a tune on the album called “Who Says?” that I first tried mixing using a modern, multi-buss compression scheme. When John heard it, he thought it sounded big and ‘radio-ready,’ but he thought that that track, in particular, needed to be stripped down and sound more honest. He was looking for an earlier-sounding approach to mixing the song.
I thought about it, and realized that he was right — that making the mix more present took away some of its honesty. So I dropped the multi-buss mix approach and went back to the route I had originally started on, which was using one stereo compressor (a Neve 33609), going into a couple Pultec EQ’s, and putting the vocals through my hardware UA LA-3A — which is just a great-sounding, simple compressor. When John came back-in about a half hour later, he said, “That’s it.” We were done.
Backing up from that album, tell us about your personal background, before you got into recording music.
I'm born in New York City and pretty much raised in both New York and Paris, France. I think the two cultures helped shape my interests to be so diversified. I fell in love with British music at a very young age and I'm very proud to be mixing bands from England. I think my European upbringing helped me understand how they like to hear their music sound.
You started-out your career as a drummer. How does that impact the way you mix records?
Having had a career as a drummer helps me in a lot of ways. Number one, I’m always looking for cues and transitions, and how to make those transitions as smooth as possible. And of course, having been a drummer makes me acutely aware of, and constantly in search of, great drum sounds. If I were the drummer on a particular record, I would want the drums to sound incredible. So having been in that seat, and now being in engineer’s, I know where to turn to make the drums sound fat and punchy. How drums sound on an album is incredibly important.
Also, as a drummer I was totally enveloped in the rush of live performance. So when I mix records, I try to channel that energy, and make records that have that kind of live, spontaneous feel to them. I mix like I’m performing along with the band, and I want that kinetic energy to translate dynamically into the sound of the song.
How did you make the transition from drumming to engineering then?
I got into recording by way of my band. I recorded our rehearsals, I learned to balance the instruments out of pure desire to stop the other band members from complaining they couldn't hear themselves. I only had a couple mics and a Teac 2trk at the time. I also recorded our shows and had plenty of time to hone in on the craft. When I got a job at Mediasound, I knew I wanted to be a mixer almost from the beginning. At that time [the late 70's] engineers did everything from recording to mixing. There wasn't really anyone yet that "only mixed." But guys like [Bob] Clearmountain, Harvey Goldberg and Tony Bongiovi helped pave the way for many of us.
You own and have access to some of the most acclaimed and rare outboard gear on the planet. When you start mixing a song, what makes you choose a particular effects processor over another?
I don’t know what tools I’m going to need until I start putting the tracks up. When I hear the rough mix, I start to get an idea of what I like, and what I think is missing in it, and what I want to bring out. I’m also helped by talking to the artist and finding out what direction they want to go in.
I might start with the drums, or the guitar, or just the vocal. I don’t have a set way I begin — it’s whatever is creating the best rhythm right off the bat. It’s about what feels good the fastest. Sometimes it’s the way the acoustic guitar and the vocal sit together. So I go with what feels good.
If I’m mixing drums and there’s something lacking, I’ll go to what’s behind me on my hardware racks. But there are other times when I’m looking for a sound that might be faster with a plug-in, so I’ll go straight for that. I don’t care whether I use hardware or plug-ins, as long as I get the sound I’m looking for as quickly as possible. When I’m searching for a sound, I might go through a number of EQ’s, or plug-ins to get the sound I want. But because I know the sound of my gear, and more recently, the sound of the UAD plug-ins, I know how to find what I’m looking for quickly. It’s about finding the right tone, and attitude, to solve a particular problem.
Can you explain the “Brauerize” mixing approach in a bit more detail?
It's an approach I developed that is based on mixing in post compression by combining multibuss, parallel and send/return compression in a unique way allowing more "freedom" between instruments. By having a choice of several sub-stereos, you can group different sets of instruments to be compressed or processed without effecting each other. In other words, if you get a great sound compressing the drums and bass on sub stereo A, adding several guitars with a different type attack/release to sub Stereo B won't effect the compression of the drums and vice-versa. When mixing within the "sweetspot," the results are more natural depth of field and implied dynamics.
What is it about UAD Powered Plug-Ins that make them an integral part of your mixing arsenal?
They’re incredibly musical. I can really push them. UAD’s emulations of traditional compressors, EQ’s and other gear like vintage tape machines do an amazing job and help me find the sounds I am looking for FAST. There are times when I actually go to them instead of the hardware alternative — that shows you how comfortable I feel with them these days. And to me that is quite extraordinary, because I never thought digital emulations would ever get that accurate. In the early days of plug-ins, you’d see a plug-in that had the exact graphics of a particular piece of vintage gear, but the sound was anything but accurate! With UAD, the sound is there.
Can you give an example of a UAD plug-in that sounds virtually indistinguishable from its hardware counterpart?
What other UAD plug-ins are you reaching for in sessions these days?
Both you and the Universal Audio have had illustrious pasts. Can you talk about your experience with UA gear, from your formative recording years until now?
Well, back in the early days, that’s all there was! In the beginning, you had 1176’s, and LA-2A’s, and LA-3A’s. That’s all we had. There wasn’t a huge selection of compressors and EQ’s out there. Some studios had Fairchilds, but we didn't have them at Mediasound, so I was using only UA gear from the start.
In terms of plug-ins, I wasn’t too impressed with a lot of the plug-ins out there. I have a lot of the original pieces of hardware, so for me to use something, it has to be great. And the UAD-2 stuff is incredible. Their Fairchild 670 sound is so good, a lot of times I use it where I normally might not. It makes vocals sound great. It makes other instruments sound good. So I think to myself, ‘Why not use it? It’s there!’
You’re known primarily for your use of vintage analog gear. But with the caliber of plug-ins like those in the UAD Series, do you have more faith that the digital domain will be able to do everything that analog does?
I have no hesitation in saying that digital will get there. Right now, it’s really primarily still a problem with latency issues. When you do something like Parallel Compression, where you’re sending two versions of the same sound — one processed and the unprocessed, there’s still a latency issue. Until designers figure that out to the deepest level, there will still be some issues with phasing.
A lot of the work I do combines many different techniques — so the processing power required is massive. When I do these moves in the analog world, they work perfectly. But trying to do it all digitally at this stage of the game — things still sound odd. Eventually, like anything else, it will all be resolved. Engineers are working on these kinds of things constantly — there are people designing virtual console strips from classic desks. It’s only a matter of time until I’ll be looking at the console on a screen instead of in front of me!
You have said that it’s always your goal to get a groove going in a mix in the first 15 minutes — that there has to be an immediate, almost instinctual reaction to the music. Can you elaborate on that?
I want to feel something good in the mix as quickly as possible. I want to get something going that’s going to say to me, ‘this is the essence of the song.’ Once I have that, I can move forward from there.
You are one of the last major mix engineers who learned their craft in a storied, recording-driven era. Aside from the shift in recording from tape to computer, analog to digital etc., what else do you think is changing in the way music is being recorded?
I think, using the example of what Universal Audio is doing with their plug-ins and R&D, that new technologies will continue where hardware leaves off. If you listen to the UAD plug-ins, you’re hearing the sound we grew-up on. So as long as that kind of attention is being paid to the way things sound, a new set of rules will emerge. It’s always been about the sound.
The only thing that I think may disappear is the way engineers are trained these days. There isn’t a process that’s in place anymore where you have engineers training assistants. I mean, I do that, as do a handful of other engineers, but these days, for the most part, everybody’s kind of learning it on their own or in school. I give seminars now all over the world — hopefully that helps to bridge the gap.
Let’s talk about some of your favorite uses for UA and UAD processors. Tell us how you like to use the hardware 1176 Compressor?
I’m using the original version, not the reissue, which I hear is great also. I like the 1176 for the amount of presence it can give. I use them on everything — it’s a great sound. Sometimes I’ll put one on a vocal, if I want it to sound a bit more urgent, if it’s sounding too laid back. It’s just overall the best compressor ever made.
What about your hardware LA-3A Compressor?
My LA-3A was modified so it has the LA-2A ‘slow release’ time as well. I use it primarily on piano and vocals. I always loved the original ‘shimmering’ Elton John piano sound, which those of us at Mediasound back in the day realized you could emulate using an LA-2A or LA-3A and a warm EQ.
You recently started using the UAD Studer A800 Multichannel Tape Recorder plug-In. What do you like using it on?
That’s a recent addition to my plug-in collection. The harder you push [the Studer A800 plug-in], the more it sounds like you’re saturating the tape. It’s just another option, and because I don’t use tape anymore, I like using it to warm things up, especially strings, which can sometimes be a bit harsh. One of the reasons I stopped using tape was because of the lack of quality control in the tape manufacturing process itself. So with the Studer plug-in, you really can get the feel of what tape sounded like, without the headaches associated with using it.
Earlier you mentioned that the UAD Fairchild emulation was so good that you liked it on everything. Can you be a little more specific as to what you like to use it on?
Vocals, drums — I’ll use it on a kick, or other drums. Because it’s a plug-in, you’re not limited to how many you can use. When you only had one Fairchild, you had to be really selective where you used it. That’s the great thing about plug-ins — you can literally put as many as you want across everything.
Do you have a specific tip or trick that you can share about using the Fairchild plug-in?
A great trick using the UAD Fairchild plugin is to put one side of it across the left side of your mix and the right side into a UAD HP filter, taking everything out below 2k. If you can make that sound good, that's a great trick! [Editors Note: We're fairly certain Michael is joking. Please don't try this at home kids.]
How are you using the UAD dbx 160 Compressor/Limiter plug-in?
I like that a lot if I really want to punch a kick drum — I’ll use it in parallel with a nice, warm, fat one. It always sounds great across the kick and or the snare.
What about the new UAD Helios EQ? How do you incorporate that classic sound into your mixes?
I just used the Helios plug-in on a rock record I’m working on by the band Grouplove, and it sounded great across the guitars. I ended-up using it on just about every song.
You’re also using the UAD Neve 1073 EQ plug-in. What do you like using it on?
I just used it on a kick to add some low end that it needed. I have the hardware version behind me as well, but the plug-in sounds great so I used it.
In addition to your hardware LA-3A, you’ve recently started using the UAD Teletronix LA-2A plug-in. What do you like that on?
It depends. Sometimes I might use it on vocals to make them sound more intimate and inviting.
I notice you’re also using the new UAD Harrison 32C EQ emulation. So many engineers and producers I know came-up using Harrison consoles. What do you like about the plug-in?
We actually had a Harrison console at Mediasound. I like the sound of the EQ, and I also like it for the great Bruce Swedien presets included with it. I can get some really cool snare, or vocal, or guitar sounds by just going to some of his presets.
So you actually use presets sometimes?
Sure. Why not? They sound great.
You’re known for your success across generations and different musical styles, and your ability to stay current. What do you think makes you able to create mixes that always surprise and sound fresh?
It’s hard for me to answer that question. I think it boils down to the fact that to me, the past is the past. If I’m in a car listening to a record by a young band, and there’s something really exciting about the production of the track, it triggers something in me that will make me experiment with those techniques later on in the studio. As long as things keep sounding fresh to me, it’s a good thing. I don’t want to fall back on what was working. What was working was the past! Once you get too comfortable with that, you fall into the past. It’s best to keep pushing yourself so you never feel too comfortable.
Who were some of your mentors when you were getting started in recording and mixing?
My mentors at Mediasound were Michael Delugg, who really taught me about compression, and Harvey Goldberg, whose specialty was Rock. They both took me under their wings. It’s funny, because they both had two completely different approaches in the way that they worked, the way they recorded, the sounds they got — and between the two of them, I was able to get a complete picture of the art of recording. Other guys that mentored me were Michael Barbiero, Bob Clearmountain, and Fred Christie, who was a senior engineer there and really watched over me.
What are some records you’ve mixed recently that you’re really excited about?
I think the new Vaccines record is really fresh. The new album by Belle Brigade is just incredible as well. And I think the new record I just completed by Grouplove has killer songs and great sounds.
There’s sort of an interesting parallel between the work UA does and the work you do — this idea of never resting on the past and constantly pushing the boundaries.
What I really like about UA is that they do a serious amount of R&D on their plug-ins before they release them. They work really hard, and you can hear it in the product. They make sure that all the artifacts of a particular EQ, or compressor, or other piece of gear are modeled accurately. That’s incredibly difficult to do, but it pays off, because for me, I’m not going to use something unless I like it. I don’t care who uses it, or who’s offering it. I just want to use what works.
All Photos: ©2011 Juan Patino Photography
— Jon Regen